How I got over half a million views in a month on Unsplash

TL:DR: Deliver on user needs, with Unsplash quality and style.

A couple of months ago, as I was working through designs for an Unsplash integration for my company’s product, I decided that I wanted to present our customers — small business owners, who want DIY commercials — with curated collections of images that would give them a jump start for their videos. So, I went about searching the site for images and collections to test the results of different terms.

It wasn’t long after punching in some basic terms for me to stumble upon strange gaps in Unsplash’s library of images. For example, I simply searched for “Lego”, assuming I’d have my pick of shots of bricks — but the results didn’t match my expectations. I was sifting through beautiful shots of characters protected by copyright, artistic portrait shots with bokeh backgrounds, and straight-up photos that did not contain a singlelego brick.

I might get a call from Disney over throwing this in a commercial for my business.

I might get a call from Disney over throwing this in a commercial for my business.

I knew I was actually sitting on a few shots of legos I took on my iPhone from a visit to a local Lego store myself, that I thought might be suitable for people coming to Unsplash and looking for a more straight-forward approach to the imagery they were looking for. I decided to make an Unsplash account, upload those pictures, and take my chances. What I didn’tknow is that approach would pan out to be so successfulfor me.

Unsplash enforces a daily photo upload limit for new accounts to curb the thousands of photo submissions they get every day, so I kept returning to the site and adding more photos that I thought felt “Unsplash worthy” to my account, some shots of the Boston waterfront, carrots from a farmers market, fish from the New England Aquarium, and soon my photos were starting to be approved to appear in search results. Here’s the thing — Nothing I uploaded even came close to touching the number of views and downloads I was getting on my Lego photos.

I formed a theory that I thought could be an effective strategy to drive views and downloads of my work.

  1. Searching for something that I suspected people were looking for, with the terms they would use

  2. Thinking through the need they were trying to fulfill

  3. Parsing the results, and considering wether or not they fufill those needs

  4. Trying to address those needs with my own photos

In the previous case, I figured people wanted what I was looking for — simple shots, of just lego bricks, with no people, and no clear tie to intellectual property. So I turned my attention to another term — money.

Thirty one bucks. Nothing more, nothing less.

Thirty one bucks. Nothing more, nothing less.

Money turned out to be an even bigger gap for my taste in the Unsplash results. I got results with branded card readers from Square, people holding money with messages, piles of international coins, and one too many shots of bitcoins as physical objects (which I’m sure are all doing well with views and downloads). I was looking for basic, American, paper currency — not being held, or with a message or metaphor attached. So I whipped out some money from my wallet, found a spot in my office with decent lighting, shot it with my phone, and uploaded it to the site. 

The Results

A week or so later, my account crossed the 500,000 views mark — around the same time we launched our products Unsplash feature. All of the photos of practical “nouns” in isolation were doing better than my DSLR-shot images which had taken more time and creative investment. The views and downloads for my money images were closer to the lego images than the cityscapes and sea life.

I don’t think my photos of cash or legos are particularlyamazing, I don’t even think that they’re as good as they could be with careful planning and better equipment — and that could still prove to be the case over time — but I do think that they clearly checked boxes for people who otherwise couldn’t quite find what they’re looking for. Unsplash is amazing service, that is brimming with high-quality portraits, landscapes, interesting objects, and gorgeous interiors, so using this user-need approach, and delivering quality that curators at Unsplash feel belongs on their site, seems like a good strategy to garner attention and usage of your work on the site.